Power utilities eye technology to boost outage management

Richard Mauer

Think about smart electric meters all over town alerting the electric utility -- on their own -- exactly where the power was out.

How about using your tablet to take a picture of the tree that just crashed through a power line and sending it electronically to the power utility dispatch center so they'd know exactly how to prepare a crew for repairs.

What about an online map you could read on your computer, tablet or smartphone showing where the power was out around town, when the outage reports were made, where crews were working, and when they hoped to be done?

To frustrated Anchorage residents who found themselves on hold for 30 minutes or more last week trying to report their outage only to have the line go dead, such scenarios might seem as ridiculously futuristic as commuting to work using a rocket pack.

But utilities around the country, including member co-ops and those owned by municipalities like the two power providers in Anchorage, already have that capability and are rapidly expanding their technology.

Chugach Electric Association, a member-owned utility, and Municipal Light and Power, owned by the city, both say they plan to take hard looks at their responses to the storm and to study how they could do better. Chugach said it will consider getting an advanced outage management system, according to spokesman Phil Steyer. ML&P has plans for a website that could display its system maps.

Chugach has more than 80,000 customers, including both residences and commercial properties, and ML&P has about 30,000 total, according to the utilities.

Both utilities say their field crews and dispatchers worked hard and effectively during the storm and its aftermath. But they acknowledge that communications with consumers was lacking. Jim Posey, general manager of ML&P, said his daughter in California was following the mayhem on Twitter and Facebook and relaying the information to him on his cellphone, even as ML&P was blinded by a phone outage, the loss of the city's website and a database that went off line. She even knew from Twitter that a tree had fallen on his truck at home, Posey said.

Just this week, ML&P hired someone to create a Facebook page for the utility and get it started with Twitter. A couple days into the outage last week, Chugach began using its Facebook page to post maps showing locations of outages and work crews, but they were static images that could only be updated by posting a new map, and there was no information about when power would be restored.

Utilities have a wealth of software options to improve their outage management, said Jeff Alman, a manager at the National Information Solutions Cooperative. The North Dakota and Missouri-based co-op, with 600 member energy and telecommunications utilities including Matanuska Electric Association but not Chugach or ML&P, started out developing accounting and billing software, Alman said. That grew into engineering and operations systems as utilities became more sophisticated in their ability to collect and manage customer and grid data.

Take smart meters.

Not long ago, a meter was a cheap device (about $30 to $50) that only provided a read-out of how many kilowatts of electricity was used by the customer since the last reading. A meter reader would have to brave dogs, ice and other dangers every month to check the dials for consumption. It was brilliant technology -- for the 19th Century.

Smart meters talk back. The least smart ones can signal to a passing utility truck what their current readings are. The smartest ones are regularly sending consumption data back to the utility, Alman said, either through signals in the power line or on radio frequencies. Customers can also get that data and use it to conserve power.

While smart meters are primarily designed for billing and managing consumption for peak and off-peak usage, they also can identify outages, Alman said. Take a 10-mile feeder line with 100 meters and a windstorm. Suddenly meters 61 to 100 stop sending data. That could trigger an automated outage report to a crew and give at least a general location for the problem. And the crews know their work is done when the meters start sending data again.

Another application maps the location of work crews using their cellphones, so dispatchers can better match outages with crews.

NISC can also provide utilities with software that will send outage reports to a manager's Android or iPad tablet.

"Let's say the operations guy is at home at dinner, he can see his map and the circuits overlayed on the map," Alman said. "He can dispatch a crew to go out. This stuff is possible, it's being done every day, it's not a big issue." Other software vendors have similar applications, he said.

Consumers can also get utility data on their tablets and can help refine outage information by sending pictures to the utility, Alman said.

Just not in Anchorage.

"All these technologies are coming together -- some are here today, some are coming quickly," Alman said. "The more information and data you can get on the operations of a utility system, the better and more reliable the service will be and the quicker the restoration will occur."

When an unusually early fall wind started howling a week ago Tuesday, uprooting and snapping fully leafed trees, lights flickered and then went out all over town. A large portion of Chugach's customers and nearly all of ML&P's 30,000 experienced at least some period of outage. It took till Sunday to get everyone back. MEA customers also lost power.

For a time Wednesday and Thursday, the utilities said they couldn't tell where the outages were and asked customers to call in -- and be persistent despite busy lines. Customers grew angry and frustrated as the hours without power grew.

Chugach and ML&P have been installing monitoring equipment at substations and large feeder lines and can tell when the big elements of the grid are in trouble. But when there are widespread outages, they're at a loss at the house and neighborhood level.

At 2 a.m. Thursday, Posey figured out at least a partial solution to the information gap. While neither ML&P nor Chugach have the most sophisticated meters, they've installed meters that will respond to a nearby radio signal and report their current readings.

Normally the utilities send a vehicle up and down the streets to query the meters for billing. In the grid streets of the older parts of Anchorage where ML&P has most of its customers, a meter truck can get data from meters three or four streets away and cover the whole territory in eight to 10 hours, Posey said.

His idea: Send the meter trucks around but instead of looking for consumption, look for error messages from meters that are not sending data, meaning there is no power.

"We got these meters, let's use them smartly," he said. "We used our smarter meters to find out data that going door to door would've taken a lot more time and a lot more people that we did not have. ... When they went into those neighborhoods, some of them were trailer courts that we had no idea were out of power."

But installing better systems is a cost that is shouldered by ratepayers. The "smarter" meters used by ML&P cost about $160 to $300. "Real smart" meters are $400 to $600, Posey said.

"With 30,000 meters, 23,000 of them residential, you're talking about a lot of money," he said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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